- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Sounding like the commissioner of the National Football League, Larry Scott talked earlier this week about the startlingly level field that women's tennis has become, underlined by the ascension of Jelena Jankovic to the No. 1 ranking.
"We did have parity this season," said Scott, the chairman and CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. "It's unusual to have that kind of balance. Jelena might not have won a major, but the great thing about the rankings is they don't lie. No one did better. There's no one in the locker room that questions whether she deserves to be No. 1."
Until now, the NFL had cornered the market on parity. But with the stunning retirement of Justine Henin back in May before her 26th birthday, anarchy suddenly reigned on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Who would have bet that Jankovic, 23, and Dinara Safina, 22, would wind up as the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players heading into next week's season-end championships in Doha, Qatar? Playing that exacta back in January would have yielded a handsome price, indeed.
"It's been a very open sort of race," Scott said. "Credit to Jelena Jankovic, she's definitely been the toughest, most consistent player during the year."
There were six changes at the No. 1 spot during the 2008 season, the third-highest turnover at the top in the 33 years under the current rankings system and the most since 2002. That was the year that four Americans -- Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport -- ascended to No. 1.
Five different women were ranked No. 1 during the course of this year -- the most ever. Henin, instructively, led them all with 20 weeks at the top, followed by Jankovic (whose 13 weeks include the rest of the calendar year), Ana Ivanovic (12), Serena Williams (four) and Maria Sharapova (three).
Telling is that in this new age of parity, four different women won the majors -- but none of them was named Jankovic or Safina.
"It is a very Hingis-like No. 1," analyst Mary Carillo said. "She stopped winning majors but picked up enough other events. Like [Martina] Hingis, Jankovic plays enough events to win enough points to get there."
Hingis won three majors in 1997 to finish as year-end No. 1. Although she won only two more majors (in 1998 and 1999), she still managed to reign as year-end No. 1 for three more years.
"I'm not feeling like we're in the salad spinner, where something new is always getting spit out," Carillo said. "Now, there's a little more order in the kitchen. If you are willing to play as much as Jankovic is, you do get rewarded. That is the beauty and the glory of the computer ranking system.
"She recognizes that, and she's learning to win big matches now."
When parity is in play, it's all about the finish. Consider Jankovic this year's version of the 2007 New York Giants. They put together a solid 10-6 record during the regular season, then ran the table in the playoffs, winning all four playoff games on the road, including the Super Bowl over the undefeated Patriots.
When Jankovic reached No. 1 for the first time, during the Olympics in August, she had won only a single tournament, Rome. But at the U.S. Open, she reached her first major final; if she had been more aggressive, she might have beaten Serena Williams. Nonetheless, it was a breakthrough, and Jankovic carried that confidence through the month of October. She won three consecutive tournaments -- Beijing, Stuttgart and Moscow -- and beat Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Vera Zvonareva, respectively, in the finals.
Jankovic's singles record this year is 63-17, which adds up to 80 matches; only Zvonareva, with 82, has played more. Jankovic's staying power can be traced to a maturing attitude and, not insignificantly, the influence of celebrated trainer Pat Etcheberry, who also has worked with Henin, Hingis, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
"Today, Jelena is the most healthy, best athlete on the tour," said Nick Bollettieri, who has watched over her career since she arrived at his Florida academy as a 12-year-old from Belgrade, Serbia. "Pound for pound, she's the best athlete. Now, sometimes Nick wishes she wouldn't go three sets to prove she's an athlete, but she's really enjoying the game right now."
Jankovic is criticized sometimes for her dramatic turns and her willingness to discuss her various (and omnipresent) injuries, but analyst Pam Shriver admires her consistency.
"She's a little bit of a throwback," Shriver said. "Even though there's drama with some of her injuries, you have to give her credit for how often she puts herself on the line in all events. She plays without being perfectly fit. Some players are afraid to go out there at anything less than their best.
"To be No. 1 these days, you don't necessarily have to be dominant. You have to put up the numbers, put up the weeks. You have to get the quarters and semis, even when you don't feel great."
Here is Jankovic's grinding mindset in a stat line: She reached the quarterfinals or better in 19 of the 21 tournaments she played and was a semifinalist 11 times.
"Is she the best player?" Carillo asked. "I guess week in, week out, she's the most productive player. I know it's not the same thing, but put it this way: She's not a part-time player. We've got some part-time players. Maybe if [the Williamses] played more, they wouldn't have to beat each other in the quarterfinals of major tournaments."
Although Jankovic was the No. 3-ranked player a year ago, consider the climb of Safina, who went from No. 15 to her present No. 2. She tied Jankovic and Serena Williams for the WTA lead with four tournament victories, starting with her coming-out announcement at Berlin. There, she beat three top-10 players, including Henin in the final match of her career. Safina emerged from her brother Marat's shadow when she reached the final at Roland Garros and, later, the Olympic title match in Beijing. Like Jankovic, Safina finished strong, winning 24 of 26 matches in August and September.
Elena Dementieva, who returned to the top 10, did not win her first major (she lost in the semis at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), but the 27-year-old Russian came away from Beijing with a gold medal. The two biggest leaps into the top 10 belonged to Agnieszka Radwanska, up to No. 10 from No. 26, and Zvonareva, who went to No. 9 from No. 23.
"I think things will remain open going forward," Scott said. "I'm excited about the year-end championships and how that will play into next year."
One of the lead story lines of the 2009 season will be Jankovic's (and Safina's) attempt to win that first major. Last year's Grand Slam champions have all suffered through injuries and streaks of inconsistency. Sharapova won the Australian Open but shut her season down when she discovered the seriousness of a persistent shoulder injury. Ivanovic won the French Open before a thumb injury effectively ended her chance for No. 1. Venus won Wimbledon but has suffered through knee and elbow injuries, while Serena, the U.S. Open champion, is still troubled by a tender ankle.
Jankovic, meanwhile, is hoping to finish the season with a flourish at the Sony Ericsson Championships.
Back in the days when she attended Bollettieri's academy in Bradenton, Fla., Jankovic was seen as a future champion, along with Sharapova and Tatiana Golovin. As a young teenager, Jankovic was a better athlete, Bollettieri said, but she was intimidated by Sharapova, who was two years younger.
"She was always looking to her mother during matches, and sometimes she lacked confidence," Bollettieri said. "Those were important years for Jelena, even though they weren't always positive. She's matured, and she's now very tough to beat."
And what about those who would criticize Jankovic for being No. 1 without collecting a coveted major title?
"I wouldn't waste one ounce of my energy answering those that say that," Bollettieri said with typical spirit. "How many people have reached No. 1 in the world? I used to say to Anna Kournikova, 'You must understand that the more famous and successful you become, the more chatter you'll hear.'
"They say your name, and no matter what they're saying about you, you say 'Thank you.' Jelena made it to the top of tennis, and no one can take that away from her."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
5dDavid M. Hale